January 16, 2012 Subject:
A Life in the Yiddish Theater
Bessie Thomashefsky was one of the great stars of the Yiddish theater.
She was only 16-years old when she ran away from home and soon married Bores Thomashefsky who become another great powerhouse of Yiddish theater.
This autobiography was written in 1916 when Bessie was at the height of her career. She would grace the stage for another 14 years before retiring in 1930.
“Mayn Lebens Geschikhte” begins with her family's move to America and their rough start in the new world before settling in Baltimore. The young Bessie tries to help the family by working in a sweatshop and by selling bananas in the plaza in front of city hall. At the age of 14 she gets to see her first play in a theater. The star of the Yiddish production is Bores Thomashefsky. She immediately falls in love with him and equally with theater itself. When Thomashefsky's troupe returns to Baltimore a couple of years later, she resolves to run away to Boston and join the troupe.
The bulk of the book covers their early struggles to make a living in the theater, a struggle that takes them from Boston to Chicago to Philadelphia and to New York.
This history is a 'must read' for anyone interested in Yiddish theater. Bessie recounts anecdotes about all of the great stars of the stage and the playwrights. We get insight into the inner workings of the theater world, but also about life on the road and in the tenements. We also get a glimpse of luxury living at the time as success builds upon success and they move into a mansion in New York. They were also among the first to bring theater to the Catskills.
This book was written at a very critical point in her life. She had just confirmed her suspicions about Bores' infidelities. She felt her life wrecked, but is beginning the process of rebuilding. It is a shame that she did not write a follow-up to her autobiography. Some of her greatest achievements and contributions to Yiddish culture lay before her.
The language is very easy to read for native English speakers. Nearly all of the loan-words are Americanisms and the vocabulary is Germanic in origin with very few Slavic words. The Hebrew loan-words are mostly common in Yiddish texts with no extended passages.
This is a very worthwhile read and a good companion work to Bores' autobiography.